Mental illness is devasting, and not only for the person affected. Mental illness can also take a toll on loved ones and family members. It can be deeply painful for family to watch their loved one—whether a child, parent, or sibling—struggle. It can also be confusing, exhausting, and stressful, as the family navigates what to do or seeks ways in which they can help.
If you are here now, it may be because someone you love is battling a mental health condition. Perhaps it is your son or daughter that’s struggling, and you feel overwhelmed and heartbroken by it all. It’s important to know that you are not alone. There is help available to you and your child. It’s also important to know that this is not your fault. Still, there are steps you can take to make this journey easier for both you and your family. Before we explore the solutions, however, let’s understand the question at hand: What are the effects of mental illness on family members?
Mental Illness’ Impact on Family Members
Although mental illness is complex, it is easy to understand how it affects the person living with a mental health condition. Every day, they are faced with difficult symptoms that disrupt their day-to-day lives. Whether a person lives with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the illness affects their bodies, emotions, and behaviors in some way. They must learn proper coping techniques in order to manage their condition and thrive.
The impact of mental illness on family, however, is less straightforward. The severity of a child’s mental health condition, as well as the type of mental illness it is, will influence how it affects those around them. The more support a child needs for their mental health, the more it will impact the family.
Mental illness tends to have a “ripple effect” on family members, meaning anyone in the household can be impacted in some way. For example, siblings of a child with mental illness may feel isolated, as they struggle to get their parents’ attention. Parents caring for a child with mental illness may feel a rollercoaster of emotions, including sadness, hopelessness, anger, guilt, and shame.
Of course, each family member will process and cope with their loved one’s mental health disorder in their own way. A SAMHSA resource explains, “Some family members may take on too much responsibility, other family members may act out, and some may just shut down.”
Below are some examples of ways a family member may be impacted by mental illness.
For parents of a child with mental illness, common effects include:
- Guilt and blame.
Parents often take responsibility for their child’s mental illness. They feel as though it is their fault that their child is suffering. Some recount what they may have done, or didn’t do, that could’ve caused the condition to surface.
As a parent, it’s important to know that mental health disorders can affect anyone. Your child’s condition is not your fault. There is not a single cause of mental illness, but rather many risk factors that can trigger a mental health problem, such as chemical imbalances in the brain and histories of trauma. Try not to blame yourself, your spouse, or even relatives. Mental illness can happen to anyone, of any age, upbringing, or family makeup.
- Feelings of hopelessness.
Like many parents, you may have had big dreams for your child. However, those may have dissipated as the mental health condition progressed. This is common for parents to experience. Depending on the severity of your loved one’s condition, you may now be feeling hopeless or disappointed, as well as confused about what the future holds.
The best thing you can do, while it may feel difficult, is to try and stay positive. Staying optimistic about your child’s health and recovery will benefit him or her, too. Know that treatment and recovery from mental health conditions is possible. If your son or daughter has tried treatment, but you feel as though their symptoms have not improved, you may consider a different mode of treatment. Sometimes, treatment needs to be revised to meet the changing needs of a person.
- Anger and reactivity.
Parents can inherently be reactive to their child’s negative behaviors—especially during the teenage years. When a child is struggling with mental illness, those negative behaviors might be even more frequent. Things like defiance, withdrawal, fighting, and substance use can be both scary and infuriating. You may feel so overwhelmed with emotions that it comes out in bursts of anger, directed at your child.
Parents may also feel angry at the general situation of their child facing a mental illness. They may ask questions like, “Why us?”, angry at the cards they were dealt. This is also very common.
Anger is a natural part of the parenting experience, but can be inhibiting for both you and your child. Anger makes it hard to communicate and clouds the meaning of conversations. As much as possible, try to have calm, open, and productive discussions with your child. Express your feelings in a calm, collected manner, and set boundaries or rules when you need to. All the while, let your child know that you are there for them.
For siblings of a child with mental illness, they may feel:
- Neglected and alone.
As noted above, it is common for siblings to feel isolated, neglected, and unimportant as their parents care for another child with a mental health condition. This is especially the case for younger siblings, who crave their parents’ attention but may feel unable to get it, or undeserving of it.
As a parent, it is easy to dedicate most of your caregiving time to your child who is struggling, but it’s important to remember that all your children have needs. Be sure to set time aside to spend with each child, and to always have open lines of communication if they are ever feeling left out.
- Embarrassed or ashamed.
As siblings get older, they may start to feel some embarrassment or shame around their brother or sister’s condition. Teenagers have a desire to fit in with friends and peers at school, and having something “different” about their family could make them feel out of place. They may feel ashamed of their sibling, or even pick on their sibling in efforts to fit in with friends.
As a parent, this situation can be difficult to navigate. One thing you can do is to make sure your child knows that mental illness is very common. While they may feel “different” from other children, they may not know that many other peers are also struggling. It is okay to talk about this and normalize the conversation around mental health. Additionally, let your child know that they have the option to be an advocate for their sibling. They can do this by standing up for their sibling, and expressing general care and love towards their sibling. Doing so can help the recovery process, creative positive feelings in the family, and teach others about coping with mental health.
- Survivor’s Syndrome.
Some siblings may experience “Survivor’s Syndrome,” which essentially means that they feel guilty for not having a mental illness, while their brother or sister suffers.
If your other child is experiencing this, be sure to sit down and have a conversation with them. Educate them about mental illness, and let them know it can happen to anyone. There is nothing they could have done to make things different, but there are ways they can help their brother or sister feel more comfortable and supported in the recovery process.
Healing from Mental Illness as a Family
When facing a mental illness in the family, it can be easy to fall into unhealthy patterns, even after the person begins treatment. Family members may continue to feel responsible or to act out rashly. They may not wish to support the family member in treatment, and withdraw completely. They may not know how to adjust once a family member is in recovery, still burdened with feelings of anger and hurt.
However, there are ways in which family members can heal. And their healing can help the person who is struggling with mental illness heal, too. Just as mental illness impacts the whole family, healing must be achieved across the entire family unit, in order to start seeing positive changes at home. As a parent, this means that you must take care of yourself and your own healing, not only your children’s.
The question is, how?
Family therapy is one of the best ways families can recover from the burdens of mental illness. Family therapy is all about integrating family members into the recovery process. With the help of a therapist, families can sit together and discuss topics like family conflicts, trauma, enablement, and communication at home. They can work through frustrations as well as create solutions. Family therapy works to make specific, positive changes in the household and within family dynamics. As the child in recovery progresses, all family members can also be working to heal from the trauma they’ve experienced as a result of the mental illness. That is what family therapy is all about. And, research has found it has very positive effects on everyone involved.
As reported by SAMHSA, “For people with mental illness, family therapy in conjunction with individual treatment can increase medication adherence, reduce rates of relapse and rehospitalization, reduce psychiatric symptoms, and relieve stress.”
Further, family therapy benefits parents and siblings in unique ways. “By making positive changes in family dynamics, the therapy can reduce the burden of stress that other family members feel. It can prevent additional family members from moving into drug or alcohol use. Research also shows that family therapy can improve how couples treat each other, how children behave, how the whole family gets along, and how the family connects with its neighbors.”
Family is a crucial part of everyone’s identity, and having positive family relationships can make recovery outcomes much more positive. In addition to family therapy, other means of healing can include practicing self-care, educating your family about mental illness, spending time together, and having open communication that establishes trust and love between family members. Get more advice for parents here.
Is Mental Illness in Your Family?
While there is not a single cause of mental illness, research shows that mental illness can run in the family. Having a family member with a mental illness, however, does not mean that you or your child are also going to struggle with that issue. You can take steps to prevent a mental health problem.
If your child is already struggling with a mental illness, know that recovery is possible. Try not to blame yourself or other family members for this situation, but rather take positive actions to heal as a family unit. Parents can make an incredible difference by staying involved, talking openly about mental health, finding the appropriate treatment program for their child, and therapy for their family as a whole.
Turnbridge is a mental health treatment facility with programs dedicated to adolescents and young adults. Because family is such an integral part of young people’s identity, we make family therapy an important aspect of our programs. We provide family support through intensive family healing workshops, parent support group sessions, sibling support groups, and more. You can learn about those options here, or call 877-581-1793 if you would like to speak with a treatment specialist.